According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at the end of 2016, over 4.5 million adults, or 1 in 55, were under the supervision of probation or parole. Although the number of adults under community supervision in 2016 was the lowest it had been since 1999, only 50% of probation exits and 57% of parole exits were the result of successful completion, and nearly 15% of the almost 2.4 million combined exits from probation and parole resulted in some term of incarceration. The Council of State Governments estimates that as many as 1 in 4 prison admissions is the result of a technical violation of community supervision.1

A recent publication by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that one strategy for managing this large community supervision population is to improve the supervision practices used to manage low-risk probationers and parolees.2 Among other things, the report suggests using technology to supervise this population from a distance. OffenderLinkTM Automated Telephone Reporting (ATR) is a supervision management and monitoring system. Designed to replace in-person reporting for lower risk offenders under community supervision, it can improve efficiencies and decrease workload associated with the supervision of this population.

This paper will demonstrate the theoretical basis for using a technology such as OffenderLinkTM ATR to supervise a low-risk population (i.e., adherence to the risk-need-responsivity principle). It will describe and summarize the existing research that evaluates different strategies for supervising people who are low risk to reoffend, including the use of technology to provide distance-based supervision. Finally, it will offer a summary of benefits and challenges to consider for the various supervision strategies suggested in the existing research, including ATR.

THE THEORETICAL FOUNDATION – RISK-NEED-RESPONSIVITY

Backed by a number of meta-analyses, the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) framework was developed in the early 1990s as a set of guiding evidence-based principles for effective community-based supervision of offenders in the criminal justice system, and it is the framework that is widely used today.3 Quite simply, the RNR frame is made up of the following principles:

  • RISK: resources should be directed to those people who are highest RISK for reoffending,
  • NEED: interventions should target criminogenic NEEDS, or those needs that are contributing to a person’s offense pattern, and
  • RESPONSIVITY: treatment should be RESPONSIVE by incorporating cognitive-behavioral strategies and matched to a person’s learning style and other personal factors (e.g., gender, language, culture, etc.).

In other words, Risk tells us WHO to pay attention to; Need tells us WHAT to address during supervision;and Responsivity gives us guidance about HOW we should address these factors. When all three partsof the RNR framework are followed, the demonstrated impact is up to a 50% decrease in recidivism.4

Who What How

Click here to add your own textTaking a closer look at the risk principle specifically, not only is it suggested that the highest risk people should receive the most intensive services, but the opposite is also recommended: that the lowest risk people should receive the least intensive treatments and supervision. In fact, there is substantial research to suggest that providing low-risk people with more intensive service can actually have an adverse effect and increase their risk.5 For example, a 2006 study by Lowenkamp, Latessa, and Holsinger explored the impact of the risk principle on 97 correctional programs serving over 13,000 offenders in Ohio. The study found that not only was the recidivism reduction greatest for programs serving high-risk populations, but that recidivism rates actually increased when these programs served a greater proportion of low-risk people.

There are at least two reasons why high-intensity services provided to low-risk people can increase risk.6 The first is that placing low-risk people in more intensive programming may put them in closer proximity to higher concentrations of high-risk people. This could lead to the strengthening of social bonds with people who are more anti-social, a known risk factor for criminal behavior.7 Second, a low-risk person is low risk because they have protective factors such as employment and attachments to positive prosocial family or friends. Putting them in more intensive programming could disrupt these protective factors; for example, a person may find their job in jeopardy if they have to report to their probation officer during the workday on a frequent basis.

LOW-RISK COMMUNITY SUPERVISION – AN OVERVIEW OF THE RESEARCH

While community supervision agencies have tried a number of different strategies to reduce the workload created by low-risk clients, ranging from a simple reduction in office visits, to using kiosk reporting (machines like an ATM that a probationer or parolee physically reports to), to using online or ATR reporting, there are very few studies that explore the effectiveness of the various supervision practices that specifically target people (probationers and / or parolees) who are low risk to recidivate.8 That said, the research that exists is generally favorable to utilizing lower intensity and technology-based reporting options for low-risk people, both in terms of the impact of these supervision strategies on public safety and on resource (e.g., time and cost) allocation. Table 1 provides an overview of existing research findings.

Table 1 – Summary of Studies Evaluating Low-Risk Supervision Strategies9

Study / Location
Supervision
Strategy
DesignFindings
Ahlin et al., 2016;
Crosse et al., 201610
Kiosk
Reporting &
Telephone
Reporting
Two different studies, one
compared kiosk reporting to
traditional face-to-face
reporting and the other
compared kiosk reporting to
telephone reporting with
interactive voice response
No difference in violations or re-arrest
between kiosk and face-to-face
reporting; no difference in re-arrest
between telephone reporting and
kiosk reporting; telephone reporting
was significantly less likely to have a
failure to report violation; telephone
reporting was cheaper than kiosk
reporting
Ahlman & Kurtz,
2008; Barnes et al.,
2010 & 2012 /
Pennsylvania
Reduction in
Contacts
A randomized controlled trial
tested the impact of a
reduction in officer contacts
and increase in low-risk
caseload size; office reporting
reduced to once every 6
months, with telephone
reporting between office visits
No difference in reoffending between
experiment (reduced contact group)
and control group, including volume
and seriousness of crime; experimental
group had significantly less absconding
Cohen et al., 2016 /
Federal Probation
Reduction in
Contacts
Examined recidivism rates for
low-risk probationers before
and after the implementation
of a low-risk supervision policy
No change in recidivism after
implementing low-risk supervision
policy, reducing probationer contacts
Johnson, Austin, &
Davies, 2003 /
Oregon
Reduction in
Contacts
Quasi-experimental design
using non-randomized
comparison groups from 3
timeframe cohorts,
representing 3 stages of
implementation of supervision
redesign
Redesigned supervision model that
reduced supervision for low-risk
probationers worked at least as well as
prior supervision model
Note: study found concerning level of assessment
overrides that may have impacted findings
Viglione & Taxman
2018 / “Mid-
Atlantic state”
Telephone
Reporting
Qualitative evaluation that
explored the implementation
of a telephone reporting
system
Staff placed 74% of low-risk
probationers on telephone reporting,
but implementation of the program
varied across probation offices
Wilson, Austin &
Naro, 2008 / New
York City
Kiosk
Reporting
Studied outcomes pre- and
post-kiosk supervision
expansion; outcomes included
reallocation of officer
resources to high-risk
probationers
High-risk probationers were provided
more intensive supervision following
kiosk expansion; 2-year re-arrest rate
declined for both low-risk and high-risk
populations

Although limitations vary from study to study, on the whole, these studies demonstrated that decreasing supervision intensity and shifting to technology-based supervision for low-risk individuals did not jeopardize public safety.

Key Point

AUTOMATED TELEPHONE REPORTING (ATR) – BENEFITS & CHALLENGES

Given that the existing research demonstrates that there is no significant negative impact on public safety when low-intensity and technology-based supervision such as kiosk, online, and telephone reporting are used to supervise low-risk probationers and parolees, there are a number of benefits for officers, supervision agencies, clients, and the public to implementing an ATR such as OffenderLinkTM. First, reducing the amount of time that officers spend with low-risk people can allow them to reallocate that time to providing increased supervision to those who are higher risk;11 if this reallocated time is spent on activities known to positively impact outcomes (e.g., addressing criminogenic needs), agencies may be able improve recidivism outcomes for the higher risk population and improve public safety as a result.12 Agencies can especially see time savings and improved data collection efficiencies if the ATR or other technology-based supervision strategy is integrated with the agency’s existing case management system.13 14 Finally, technology-increased supervision such as ATR or kiosk reporting costs less than face-to-face supervision, with ATR being less expensive than kiosk reporting.15

For clients, any reduction in supervision requirements, whether it is reduced office visits or some form of technology-based supervision, means less time away from the protective factors that keep them low risk, like family, work, or school, and technology-based supervision methods also provide the client increased flexibility and autonomy over his or her supervision;16 ATR and online reporting have the added benefit of removing any barriers associated with the access to transportation needed to report at a physical location. Technology-based supervision can also minimize or eliminate the time that a low-risk probationer or parolee might sit in a waiting room with higher risk clients, waiting for a face-to-face office visit with their officer;17 consequently, the opportunities to strengthen bonds with anti-social people is also reduced.18 And finally, clients may be motivated to work toward a low-intensity reporting option as an incentive or reinforcement for compliance and progress toward reaching supervision goals.19

Implementation of any initiative for the nimblest of organizations can still be challenging.20 These challenges can generally be sorted into technical (e.g., equipment or IT infrastructure) or adaptive (e.g.,attitudes and perceptions of staff or clients). Although none of the research cited above explored the technical challenges to the implementation of ATR specifically, one might reasonably assume that some of the technical challenges that exist for kiosk and online reporting would not be barriers for ATR. For example, ATR does not require the purchase and placement of physical kiosks.21 Although online reporting requires access to the internet, ATR only requires access to a telephone, and it is estimated that 96% of adults in this country own some sort of mobile phone,22 not to mention the people that continue to utilize landline telephone service. Other challenges for technology-based supervision tools include the enrollment process for officers and clients, confidential data protection, and client identity verification—is the person under supervision actually the person reporting?23 Agencies are encouraged to address these issues with potential vendors prior to selecting a supervision service.24

As identified in Viglione and Taxman’s 2018 study, implementation of an TR system is certainly not without adaptive challenges. As this research suggests, should an agency decide that the use of ATR is a viable way to adhere to the risk principle and allow staff to focus time on higher risk people, it is critical to address a number of implementation issues prior to and during the implementation process, including staff perceptions of ATR, the extent to which adaptation of ATR utilization will be allowed, and how (or if) internal and external influences support ATR.25 In addition, since this population tends to be more motivated and more likely to succeed on supervision, staff may be reluctant to substitute a reduction in contacts with low-risk people for an increase in contacts with more challenging high-risk clients and special attention should be given to equipping staff to work with this different population.26

Finally, successful implementation of an ATR, or any low-intensity supervision practice, for low-risk probationers and parolees also requires agencies to use and accurately administer a valid risk assessment.27 Viglione, Rudes, and Taxman studied the issues of “technology transfer” related to risk need assessment—how does assessment information get transferred and operationalized in supervision practices within the complicated context of officer decision-making, the nature of the risk need assessment itself, organizational culture and leadership, and internal and external support for the need and utility of assessments?28 The study found wide variance in how risk need assessment was transferred to supervision practice, and while it is beyond the scope of this paper to address issues related to risk need assessment, the importance of administering valid risk need assessments with fidelity and utilizing that information to make decisions related to the management and supervision of a low-risk population probably cannot be understated. Although the research suggests that low-intensity and technology-based supervision of low-risk probationers and parolees poses no increased risk to public safety, agencies and officers need to accurately identify the low-risk population at the outset.

CONCLUSION

As this paper has outlined, although there is a general lack of research evaluating supervision practices for low risk people under community supervision, the studies that do exist suggest that low-intensity, technology-based supervision strategies are at least as effective as traditional supervision for this population. These strategies also align with the well-researched and evidence-based risk-need-responsivity framework. The benefits to technology-based supervision strategies are significant and range from increased efficiency in resource allocation for officers to cost savings for agencies to increased flexibility and autonomy for clients, all without increased risk to public safety; in fact some of these benefits (e.g., cost savings and flexibility) are even more pronounced for ATR programs like OffenderLinkTM. In order to maximize the potential for successful implementation of any low-intensity or technology-based supervision strategy, agencies should plan for both technical and adaptive challenges to implementation and be prepared to provide ongoing officer and manager support to address staff needs.

1 Council of State Governments, 2019
2 Pew Charitable Trusts, 2020
3 Andrews, Bonta, & Hoge, 1990; Andrews, Zinger, et al., 1990; Bonta & Andrews, 2017; Bonta, Wallace-Capretta, & Rooney,
2000; Prendergast, Pearson, Podus, Hamilton, & Greenwell, 2013; Viglione & Taxman, 2018
4 Andrews, Zinger, et al., 1990
5 Andrews, Bonta, & Hoge, 1990; Andrews & Kiessling, 1980; Bonta & Andrews 2017; Bonta, et al., 2000; Hanley, 2002, 2006;
Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2004
6 Lowenkamp & Latessa 2004; Lowenkamp, et al., 2006
7 Bonta & Andrews 2017
8 Barnes, Hyatt, Ahlman, & Kent, 2012; Viglione & Taxman 2018
9 A number of studies referenced an evaluation of a kiosk program in Maryland that demonstrated a reduction in recidivism for
low-risk clients assigned to the program, but the source evaluation could not be located and was therefore not included as a
resource for this publication. In addition, Belshaw (2011) and Baker (n.d.) explored low-risk reporting options to replace faceto-
face reporting in Texas and Florida respectively. As neither study was an evaluation of low-risk supervision, they were not
included in the summary above.
10 Outcome study sites were not identified.
11 Ahlin, Hagen, Harmon, & Crosse, 2016; Ahlman & Kurtz, 2008; Baker, n.d.; Barnes, et al., 2010, 2012; Belshaw, 2011; Cohen,
Cook, & Lowenkamp, 2016; Jannetta & Halberstadt, 2011; VanBenschoten, Bentley, Gregoire, & Lowenkamp, 2016; Wilson,
Austin, & Naro, 2008
12 Bonta, Rugge, Scott, Bourgon, & Yessine, 2016; Lowenkamp & Latessa, 2004
13 OffenderLinkTM integrates its ATR with an agency’s existing case management platform as a standard implementation
practice.
14 Ahlin et al., 2016; Crosse et al., 2016; Viglione & Taxman 2018; Wilson, et al., 2008
15 Barnes et al., 2010, 2012; Crosse et al., 2016; Wilson, et al., 2008
16 Ahlin et al., 2016; Wilson, et al., 2008
17 Baker, n.d.
18 Ahlin et al., 2016; Wilson, et al., 2008
19 Ahlin et al., 2016
20 Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005
21 Ahlin et al., 2016; Belshaw, 2011; Crosse et al., 2016
22 Pew Research Center, 2019
23 Ahlin et al., 2016; Baker, n.d.; Wilson, et al., 2008
24 OffenderLinkTM utilizes highly secure data encryption protocols and offers secure voice biometric authentication.
25 see also Baker, n.d.
26 Ahlin et al., 2016; Belshaw, 2011; Jannetta & Halberstadt, 2011
27 Ahlin et al., 2016; Baker, n.d.; Barnes, et al., 2012; Jannetta & Halberstadt, 2011; Johnson, Austin & Davies, 2003; Wilson, et
al., 2008; Viglione & Taxman, 2018
28 Viglione, Rudes, & Taxman. 2015

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Heather Garwood is an independent consultant with 20 years of experience working in public administration and non-profit criminal justice organizations. She has experience providing direct client service as a former probation officer and administrative support in the field of criminal justice community supervision. Her experience includes policy and program development and implementation, management facilitation, training, and coaching to support the use of evidence-based and evidence-informed supervision strategies. She is also a knowledgeable and experienced trainer and coach in Risk-Need-Responsivity principles, the Level of Service Inventory – Revised, case planning, and cognitive-behavioral techniques. She is committed to working with people and organizations to improve service quality and outcomes for people. For more information, go to https://www.linkedin.com/in/heathergarwood/

ABOUT FIELDWARE, LLC:

Fieldware, LLC was formed in 2000 and has been working with government clients in the criminal justice field since that time. At this time, 100% of the company’s resources are dedicated to the support, enhancement and expansion of the modular OffenderLinkTM system exclusively for government agency clients. Fieldware currently provides Automated Telephone Reporting and related services to twelve (12) state-wide probation/parole agencies along with many county and local agencies across the US. The OffenderLinkTM ATR system has processed over 9 million check-ins to date. For more information go to fieldware.com; call 312.258.1000, ext. 322; or email info@fieldware.com.